Film and Book Review: ‘Silence’ by Shusaku Endo: and The Film Starring Andrew Garfield

Silence by Shusaku Endo is one of the most compelling and powerful books I’ve ever read.Silence - a novel by Shusaku Endo I wrote about it in this way on my website as part of a blog post about an exhibition at the British Museum, Living With the Gods.

When I first read the book, several years ago, I think one of the most remarkable things about it is that the reader can see both sides and even have some understanding both of the Japanese and the Jesuit priest, despite the extreme cruelty of the torture to which the Christian converts are subjected.

I personally thought the priest Roderigues should apostatise and that it wouldn’t detract from the integrity of his faith at all, because how can we ever eradicate what is in the heart of another, especially in the face of words and actions forced out of them under torture?

But I admired the priest’s determination to stay true to his faith, as he understood it. I also felt I could make sense of the position of the Japanese, utterly determined to stop a foreign religion from adultering and diluting their own culture, from stealing hearts and minds in their own country devoted to their own religions. I saw both sides.

And in the film directed by Martin Scorsese which was released in 2010, I felt the same. Basically the Jesuit priest played by Andrew Garfield would be wisest, I considered, to recognise that the Japanese culture and mindset was utterly alien from his own cultural formulations of religion and utterly set on protecting their own cultural and religious identity.

I feel the same when I read about the Jesuit priests who came to England clandestinely in the sixteenth century to try and turn England back to Catholicism again:  God’s Secret Agents, an excellent book by Alice Hogge.  And also when I visit historical properties which were once strong Catholic houses whose occupants practised their faith against the direct orders of their government, and where persecution of priests is part of the house’s history.

No matter the rightness or the wrongness of their position, when viewed in hindsight, I still admire the priests’ passionate conviction in the face of fierce persecution and the prospect of being hanged drawn and quartered.

England ultimately became Protestant, and I don’t myself believe that the spiritual stakes as they saw them ever existed; or that the fate of anyone’s eternal soul ever stood in jeopardy according to whether they were Catholic or Protestant.

But they believed it. And that’s all that matters.

Were they wrong? This is the big question that hangs over all these heartrending, dramatic stories. And the same question hangs over all our lives, as we struggle for whatever cause or goal or dream we passionately believe in. We’re probably wrong, too. Or at least there’s a high probability we are.

But does that invalidate our passion, conviction, courage and persistence and fierce unrelenting resilience?

No. Because if it does invalidate it, then shall we all just give up now?

I know as a writer I will never give up, whatever the outcome may be.

SC Skillman

Psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path

Coming soon: Spirit of Warwickshire

 

Reflections on Life and the Writer’s Journey from a Mamma Mia Perspective

Yes I do indeed find some lessons from Mamma Mia on the dynamics of life – and the writing journey.

Mamma Mia Here We Go Again

Having recently seen the film Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, twice, and loved it even more the second time I saw it,  I felt compelled to draw out some dynamic equivalents for all of us.

Mamma Mia, the first movie, has been accused of being sentimental, idealistic,  sugary, unrealistic; and yet the second movie with its fast moving sequences of prequel and sequel I believe is very like life as we all can experience it… minus the extremely skilful singing and dancing sequences of course!

Of course all that I write from now on will only be fully understood by those who have seen and loved both movies. And if you haven’t seen the second film yet and don’t like spoilers… then don’t read on!

Certainly I identified with young Donna to an extent; I myself travelled to Greece on an extremely eventful holiday with my friend during my first university vacation; and it was full of romantic interludes and risk-taking and narrow escapes. My first move after graduating from university was to go to the Greek island of Rhodes. And during that holiday I, like Donna, with Sam, enjoyed an island tour on the back of a motorbike, with a young Greek Adonis whom I had only met for the first time the hour before…

Here are the highlights in the second movie from which I drew my reflections:

1.  When young Donna and young Sam took a boat across to the small island, Donna spoke about knowing what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. She said she wanted to stay on the island forever. Sam said it wasn’t that simple… and as we watched, we were fully aware of how their lives would pan out for the next twenty five years, as a consequence of their actions and decisions and words during the small amount of time they spent together.

2.  The relationship between Sophie and Sam twenty five years later, both grieving for Donna, but supporting and loving each other: so sad and yet so beautiful, and everything that Donna could have hoped for, notwithstanding that she could never have known her life would be cut short so early.

3.  The use of parallelism as the scenes switched back and forward over twenty five years; the rooms in the farmhouse; the two pregnancies; the two babies.

4. Amanda Seyfried, who played Sophie: older, sadder and wiser than the sparkly, impulsive, madcap young girl we see in the first film – and yet still so beautiful inside and out.

5.  The role that Donna’s friends Tanya and Rosie play throughout both films; first, supporting and encouraging Donna, and then transferring that same support to Sophie.

6. Seeing the older men and their young selves dancing together at the end.

7. Cher in the role of formerly recalcitrant grandmother – now returned, reformed – to meet again the man she last saw in 1959.

Perhaps stretching credulity for some of us … and yet still may there be a message for us there?

Life can be very strange indeed. It was Adrian Plass who said, You don’t know what is going on behind the scenes.

Life may have brought us many disappointments; it may be difficult to keep faith, and easy to give up hope in achieving all that we have dreamed of: and I don’t deny that. I am very well aware of it myself, in my life, in the wrong choices I’ve made, and especially in my writing journey;  and yet we can never discount life’s quirkiness, its unexpectedness, the twists and loops and connections that may utterly surprise us.

It does seem to be an essential part of the dynamics of life that what we hope for and dream of may be taken out of our hands, and yet at some future stage we may receive an unexpected gift, that would never have been possible without our hasty actions or impulsive decisions in the past; sometimes we may do something outrageous or foolish; all this may play its part in some unfathomable outcome years ahead.

And the men dancing with their younger selves? You may see that as just a fun scene with the actors stepping outside their roles in the story timeline, and enjoying themselves. So it was. But also what a lovely metaphor for us:  dancing with our younger selves, even if we feel they made mistake and wrong choices, even if we regret things those younger selves said and did… perhaps the message is to dance with our younger selves, a joyous acceptance of all that we are and have been… and accept the passing of time, together with all the unexpected gifts that brings, trust in the process of life, and keep faith.

Reflection Upon The Nativity film 2010

Tatiana Masleny as Mary and Andrew Buchan as Joseph in The Nativity film 2010
Tatiana Masleny as Mary and Andrew Buchan as Joseph in The Nativity film 2010

I recently watched again “The Nativity”, the TV mini series first broadcast by the BBC at Christmas 2010 but this time I watched the entire film on DVD.

I remember the series had a strong impression on me when I first viewed it and we could hardly wait for each new episode. Seeing it as a continuous story was a different experience from viewing it in episodes;  I found it much more challenging and harrowing, especially the scenes in which Mary is judged and reviled both by her fellow villagers in Nazareth, and by householders and innkeepers in Bethlehem.

Tatiana Masleny and Andrew Buchan both gave brilliant performances as Mary and Joseph  and I must confess John Lynch came over as a very handsome and rugged Gabriel.

Here’s a Youtube link to a beautiful and moving song by Kate Bush with clips from The Nativity film.

Seeing this very realistic re-imagining of the Nativity story again, I realised afresh how divisive the story is, for all those who engage with it, whatever they believe.  To see Mary portrayed like this when she has been so revered by Catholics over the millennia with titles like Queen of Heaven and Mother of God, is certainly very challenging. And it makes me wonder again about the assertions of Christian theology, most notably the question of how God could have chosen to bring his Son into the world by causing Mary so much suffering … huge issues arise from this, and provide much material for argument and discussion. Once again this brings up the question that many have struggled with, of why Jesus could not be the son of God and also born naturally by Joseph.

I thought this portrayal of the story has the power either to strengthen and enhance the faith of the viewer or make them lose it. It all depends on the stance the viewer takes before they come to the story.

Certainly I remember the leader of our group at an Alpha course a few years ago beginning the discussion by saying he did not believe in the virgin birth.

But in this film version, we see Joseph as key. His ability to wholeheartedly believe what Mary was telling him, saved her from the judgementalism and hatred and rejection of all those around her – which, without the protection of Joseph, may even have resulted in her death before Jesus was even born.

This gives us much to reflect upon.

 

 

 

My Dream Cast for “Mystical Circles”

Novelists, have you “dreamcast the film adaptation of your book? Many do! Film Adaptations of books If you do it early enough in the process of writing your novel, it can be very helpful. Though I understand that the reality of having your book turned into a film can sometimes not be a very pleasant experience. I was amused by this quote from the blog My Book, the Movie:

They would ask me what actors I saw in the roles. I would tell them, and they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ And that would be the end of it.   (Elmore Leonard, in 2000, on the extent of his input for Hollywood’s adaptation of his novels).

Here’s my dream cast for Mystical Circles:

Juliet, my main protagonist, who  hurries to the Cotswolds to rescue her sister from a charismatic cult leader:   Jennifer Lawrence

Zoe, Juliet’s younger sister:      Saoirse Ronan

Theo, a troubled priest:    Bradley James

Rory, a strange young man with a mysterious “thorn in the flesh”:    Johnny Depp

Edgar, obsessed with getting new recruits to fill out questionnaires:     Matt Smith

Al, an American visitor:     John Goodman

Llewellyn, a Welsh poet:     Rhys Ifans

Don, the cult leader’s disenchanted father:     Bill Nighy

Oleg, a Russian visitor:     David Tennant

Sam, a nervous youth, here on his GP’s recommendation to recover from an unhealthy mutually interdependent relationship with his twin brother:     Matt Baynton

Laura, flighty girl-woman of indeterminate age:     Sarah Hadland

Craig, the cult leader:     Tom Hiddleston

James, urbane and elegant, Craig’s former mentor from Edinburgh University who inspired him to set up the cult in the first place:     Benedict Cumberbatch

Patrick, an Irish handyman and gardener:     James Nesbitt

Beth, an insecure and tense young woman:      Zooey Deschanel

And having chosen the cast, here is my dream production company:  Working Title Films.

And the producers:  Duncan Kenworthy, Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan.

And finally, the Director: Debbie Isitt.

Look out for the third edition of Mystical Circles  with a new cover design. It will be published by Luminarie on 30 August 2017.

The Full Monty and What it Says About Not Being Controlled by Your Circumstances

Recently I watched the 1997 British comedy drama film  “The Full Monty” again. The Full Monty film posterThe reason why I love it is that it’s about “little” people deciding not to be controlled by their circumstances. Six men who in their different ways are suffering during the decline of the Sheffield steel industry, decide to do something nobody believes they can deliver on.

If you haven’t seen this wonderful film then I highly recommend it; read about it here. Somehow that message of hope is encapsulated in one of the outstanding elements of the film: the faces of the audience members in the club at the end. They express joy, laughter, fun and delight. Their reaction is a natural response to “local lads” demonstrating that if we choose, we can all have the courage to:

  1. compete with those who seem to be hugely successful “out there”
  2. get up on stage and run the risk of making fools of ourselves
  3. demonstrate that we will not allow ourselves to be controlled by our circumstances.

This is a universal message, relevant in so many different ways in today’s society. This is why “The Full Monty” is an inspiration to its audiences and why, using humour, it delivers a powerful truth, relevant to all our lives.

The Gatiss/Moffatt Post-StoryTelling World of Sherlock

We’re familiar with the phrase postmodern and more recently with the notion of post-truth. benedict-cumberbatch-as-sherlockBut now I think, for writers, it is true that there is a post-storytelling phenomenon – which moves beyond and over-turns current rules. And it’s illustrated in the scripts that Steven Moffatt  and Mark Gatiss create for their TV drama series Sherlock.

It is now becoming more and more acceptable for audiences, on first viewing, to be confused by a story, but to stick with it for the sake of their love of the characters. This is certainly true of the most recently aired Sherlock episode: The Final Problem  which presented a great challenge to the brilliant acting skills of Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Mark Gatiss.  Clues as to what is or might be going on are planted in the current or the previous episodes, and because audiences can now view the episode many times, story-tellers are exploring new territory to take advantage of this.

Moving seamlessly between what’s in the mind and what’s actually happening in the physical world, Moffat and Gatiss break genre expectations (for which I here use the word rules – for so long as they can be deemed to exist) to involve their characters in events in the physical world whilst they remain free of the natural consequences, by some means which is not clear – other than through the clues I mention above. The popularity of the story of the modern Sherlock Holmes and John Watson itself seems to justify the transgression of the rules – or the pushing of these rules to their extremes – just like the characters themselves.

We saw Moffatt and Gatiss work brilliantly with a terrifying metaphor – a little girl the sole conscious person on board an aeroplane in mid-flight, needing to be talked into landing the craft. This was very archetypal and the stuff of nightmare, and a powerful metaphor for a small child under stress. But it’s not clear until the very end that this scenario is not happening in the physical world, but it is a metaphor, and in the mind.

However in one respect the story-telling remains strictly true to the original Conan Doyle stories – Sherlock’s ability to take things to an extreme pitch of personal danger to himself and to those closest to him, and then to emerge from it calm, self-possessed and in control. He does that in Conan Doyle’s original story The Adventure of the Dying Detective, where Watson is convinced Holmes is dying from a dreadful Asian disease, but when Holmes has secured the villain’s confession, and Inspector G. Lestrade has walked in, the “dying” Holmes suddenly transforms to his normal self and says, “All is in order, and this is your man.”

I remember well how I felt when I read that story – I was every bit as gripped by that as by watching the latest Sherlock episode on TV. So the Moffatt-Gatiss Sherlock is true to the original in this respect. Moffatt and Gatiss are replicating this factor using very impressionistic stylistic techniques made possible by today’s film/TV technology.

The very essence of Sherlock Holmes’ intellectual genius is his ability to make cool, measured calculations based on reason, whilst in a situation where the majority of people would be undermined by tumultous emotions. But right at the centre of The Final Problem, is Sherlock’s discovery not of his intellectual genius, but of his heart. The appearance of Lestrade at the end and John in the blanket is so reassuring and comforting – “order is restored, John’s in a blanket just as Sherlock was in the very first episode of all,  A Study in Pink…. and Sherlock has saved him through supreme reasoning powers allied to his loyalty – and he has told Molly he loves her (twice, and sounding genuine).” So Sherlock has a heart. If he had a choice to live without John’s friendship and loyalty, or to live without Mycroft’s power and intellect, he would choose the second; and when no words could be used to communicate with his profoundly damaged sister Eurus, he alone communicated with her – using his violin.

I read a very telling admission in an interview with the two writers: they say of their character Sherlock “everything he has worked towards, everything he has tried to get away from in himself and deny about himself, is what makes him strongest.”

All in all – on first viewing we are confused, but still electrified – and we love and care for the characters more than ever.

 

 

 

Inspiration from Foreign Language Films in our Film Club

During the course of this blog  I’ve written about sources of inspiration from many directions – from people, cities, landscape, history, buildings, travel, books, art, TV drama and films.

Certainly films I love have enriched my creative life. Writers benefit from cross-fertilisation all the time!  A few years ago my writer friend Meg Harper set up a film group, and we’ve been meeting ever since. At each meeting six of us watch a film together which one of us chose the last time, and then we discuss it.  This way, I’ve seen several films which would otherwise never have come to my notice.  Some of them have been brilliant and moving; films from Germany, France, Poland and India. Today I bring you an article by my media student daughter Abigail on the Film Debate website about her five recommended foreign language films.

Abigail has chosen:

Pather Panchali, part of the Apu Trilogy (India); He Loves Me He Loves Me Not (France); Untouchable (France), Ida (Poland) and Run Lola Run (Germany).

 

Do have a look at Abigail’s article and read about all these films. And I’d love to have your thoughts either in the comments here on this blog, or perhaps you may choose to comment directly on the Film Debate website.

 

Thoughts on Three Dimensional Characters in Films and Novels – Inspired by Hugh Grant

On the Graham Norton Show which was broadcast on BBC One on Friday 16th April 2016, Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in Florence Foster Jenkinsactor Hugh Grant said he took on the role of St Clair Bayfield in the newly-released film Florence Foster Jenkins against his previous intentions, because a) the script was so good and b) because he was attracted by the three dimensional character he was being invited to play – which implies he thinks all his previous characters were one dimensional.

Hugh said that the character he plays, St Clair Bayfield, is “a failed actor” who has chosen to protect Florence (played by the wonderful Meryl Streep) from true self-knowledge because he loves her. In the film, this character goes to extraordinary lengths to collude with Florence’s self-deception, by covering up her lack of ability as a singer and paying off bad reviewers and hiding her from the truth.  In other words he does what seems to be cowardly, morally weak, wrong and even cruel, for complex reasons that are not straightforwardly immoral, and because he is emotionally invested in supporting her and upholding her in the dream she believes in.

I haven’t seen the film yet and so cannot offer a review, but I was fascinated by the point Hugh Grant was making. Many love the characters Hugh has played so far during his film career, but his comments brought me back again to the vital importance of three dimensional characters, not only in persuading major actors to take on film roles, but also in winning success for a novel.

Three dimensional characters in fiction are those whose actions, words, relationships, behaviour and inner life all work together to win our empathy.  Just as the hallmark of a great leader is the ability to win people’s confidence, the sign of a great character in fiction is that we care for them deeply, whether their actions are “good” or “bad” or far less easily defined. Whilst reading a recent novel I was starting to intensely dislike a certain character, when his actions and behaviour were depicted from the viewpoint of someone else. But then the author took me into his viewpoint – and my attitude to him was transformed.

I believe we only need to see and understand someone’s inner life, to feel that empathy for them.

Do share in the comments. Which are your favourite three dimensional characters in fiction, and why?

The Creative Power of an Intense Group of People in the Hothouse Environment of a Writers Retreat

Mystical Circles by SC Skillman
Mystical Circles by SC Skillman

I’ve now finished my series of Cave posts as new inspiration has intervened!

One of my fellow bloggers Lance Greenfield has just opened up thoughts of writers retreats by reblogging this post on the subject by Max Dunbar. Lance then went on to ask his own followers for their responses to Max’s thoughts, and whether it would be worthwhile for him to go on one of the many writers’ courses or retreats that are available here in the UK.

Part of my inspiration for my novel Mystical Circles was an Arvon Foundation poetry course which I attended at Totleigh Barton farmhouse in Devon. My fellow poets that week reflected the wide variety of characters to be found at a writers’ retreat in the UK – and in the story of Mystical Circles.  Among these you may find – alongside whatever idiosyncracies you yourself may bring – several complex personalities; and your interactions with others, and your observations, form an inexhaustible source for a writer. And I believe it’s vital to write about people, no matter how deeply flawed, with love and empathy, never in a detached or critical spirit.

Below I list some of my favourite plays, books and films which have achieved this:

Unnatural Causes by PD James (detective novel set in a literary community)

Peter’s Friends (film directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring  Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie)

Abigail’s Party by Mike Leigh (brilliantly developed and improvised by playwright and actors and first broadcast by the BBC in 1977)

Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw (a group of people are invited to one of Hesione Hushabye’s infamous dinner parties, to be held at the house of her father, the eccentric Captain Shotover)

If you’re fascinated by group dynamics and it’s relevant to what you’re writing, then a writers retreat – a small group of intense people in a hothouse atmosphere – may be ideal for you!

 

 

Ghostly Encounters, Earthbound Spirits and a Promise of Love

Recently my sister in Australia sent me a set of DVDs – ironically made in England,  containing a documentary series on Great British Ghosts narrated by Michaela Strachan for the BBC. The set also included a third documentary, narrated by Paul McGann in a balanced, neutral tone, called Ghosts of the London Underground, and this was by far the most compelling of the three.

Ghosts on the Underground documentary narrated by Paul McGann
Ghosts on the Underground documentary narrated by Paul McGann

Traditionally in England, sightings of ghosts such as grey ladies in sixteenth century properties can be attributed by sceptics to over sensitive or highly-imaginative people tuned in to the atmosphere whilst staying overnight in Tudor coaching inns.

But the ghosts of the London Underground have a different character. Each story in this documentary is told by a worker whom you would describe as ‘a totally down to earth, practical no-nonsense bloke’ whom many might  consider diametrically opposite to the popular image of the type of person who claims to have ghostly encounters. Some of those who told their stories said “I don’t believe in ghosts… but I’ve had an experience I will remember for the rest of my life as something which happened to me which has no explanation.”

Beneath the ticket halls, walkways, escalators and tunnels through which so many people stream, carrying out their daily lives, there is another story: the lingering residue of the souls of people who died terrible and tragic deaths,   and somehow imprinted a psychic recording into those tunnels; and not just the ones which have been abandoned.

One day I believe we will fully understand why and how these things happen, but right now, to my knowledge, we have no satisfactory over-arching philosophy to account for these experiences. I shrink from believing that the soul of a human being can possibly be condemned to wander for years close to the place where they had the worst experience of their life on earth. And I cannot fathom why the essence of a person should continue to walk in the place where their life ended, apparently unaware of the fact that they’re dead. Yet living people have had and continue to have experiences which would indicate this as an immediate explanation.

My new upcoming novel A Passionate Spirit contains several ghost stories and an element of the unexplained, and I admit to being fascinated by these phenomena. I used to love Tales of Mystery and Imagination on TV in the past, and not long ago read and reviewed Classic Tales of the Macabre by masters of the ghost story genre: a dazzling display of atmospheric writing from masters of the craft, that demonstrate the art of suspense, with the build-up of horror. The stories in this book are must-reads for anyone seeking to write in the genre nowadays; they range from supernatural to psychological subjects, and all of them are beautifully-written..

However there is another aspect of these experiences. If they are psychic recordings of energy, the fact that they draw the living to engage emotionally with certain tragic life events that happened to individuals in the past, is on one level a good thing.

Of all the millions of beings who’ve been through this world, ghosts are few and far between. And many pass through leaving no mark at all. Nevertheless, there are a few who do indeed leave a mark. And people who’d otherwise be ignorant of their existence are drawn not only to them and to their story but in such a way that they engage emotionally with it.

What we do with this idea depends on a number of factors, not least our worldview.

From a Christian point of view, the fact that every diocese of the Church of England has a “deliverance ministry” (no longer using the term “exorcism”) this presupposes that Christians do actually accept the idea of “earthbound spirits” who need to be released.

Christian theology asserts that each individual soul who has ever lived is loved by God.

In Revelation 21: 3-4 we read these words “One day I will wipe away every tear from your eyes and I’ll take away all the pain you have suffered on this earth.”

This is a promise to hold onto, for those of us who are drawn to investigating these ghostly encounters.